While well-intentioned, UW math course packets ultimately cost students

Short custom pamphlets do not provide necessary examples, explanations required for complexity of calculus

· Mar 7, 2017 Tweet

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Often, negative repercussions reverberate from even the best intentions. While the goal is to help others, unforeseen consequences end up being detrimental.

The math department’s decision to provide course packets instead of textbooks for Math 221, 222 and 234 is an example of this. While providing course packets is the math department’s admirable attempt to help curb the rising cost of attending the University of Wisconsin, the problems associated with the course packets ultimately outweigh the financial savings.

A typical course packet from the math department costs a mere $20, while a textbook for the same class would cost around $200. This offers significant savings. In this regard, the math department succeeds in its goal to limit student expenditure.

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Unfortunately, these savings come with an unforeseen cost. A typical calculus textbook is 400 to 600 pages and is filled with examples, explanation, problems and solutions for students to learn the material. In comparison, the math department’s course packets are less than 200 pages. This means a typical UW calculus student has less than half the available learning resources a student with a normal textbook has.

Considering the cost of taking a calculus course at UW ranges from approximately $1,400 for in-state students to approximately $4,400 for nonresidents, the $180 savings pales in comparison to the total cost of attendance. And the limited number of examples, explanations and problems present in the course packet severely hampers a student’s ability to learn the material.

As every one of my math teachers has said, the best way to learn math comes from doing the problems. Unfortunately, due to the structure of the UW course packets, I spend more time trying to decipher the limited examples for an explanation on what I’m supposed to do than on actually doing the problems themselves.

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I believe every student in the math department would benefit from an increase in the number of examples within the packet. I often hear students in my discussions bemoaning the fact they find the course packet useless and end up teaching themselves the material from online resources.

This strikes me as an unacceptable outcome. Students who pay thousands of dollars to attend a class here at UW find themselves better off using free or torrented online resources rather than the materials UW provides.

One could argue students who find the course packet unsuitable should just purchase a supplemental textbook, but I see a few issues with that.

A random calculus textbook will often teach material in a different order or slightly differently. Plus, having students purchase a supplement textbook completely nullifies the initial cost savings. It would also be unfair to students who cannot afford both.

Instead, I feel the math department should continue to strive to save students’ money while finding a middle ground that provides students with better resources to learn the material. I don’t see why the math department couldn’t double the size of the course packets and provide significantly more examples, explanation and problems for students to use. Even if doubling the size of the course packet raises the price to $40 or $50, it would still significantly mitigate costs for students while also increasing the resources available to students.

It seems to me this path forward provides the best of both worlds, with students winning financially and academically. If the math department took this step, they would significantly improve their students’ comprehension of the material and allow everyone in the department to thrive.

Connor Allen ([email protected]is a junior majoring in history and economics.


This article was published Mar 7, 2017 at 6:00 am and last updated Mar 6, 2017 at 8:58 pm


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